The Smartest Guy in the Room

by Daniel Foster

Jonah, I just got off a conference call with Gingrich and a bunch of bloggers that went pretty much exactly as your post would have predicted: Newt relied on a number of fine-grained rhetorical and semantic distinctions to maintain positions that seem on the surface to be mutually exclusive,  and couched it all in terms of the importance of framing policies in ways that can attract the broadest public support.

Newt said his Meet the Press comments about Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal were “much more controversial” than he intended them to be, that he didn’t go into the interview with David Gregory “quite hostile enough” and that he shouldn’t have let Gregory, who was making “very deliberate efforts to pick fights” set the terms of debate. While Gingrich now says he used language that was “too strong” he stands by the substance of his response:

“I was asked a very narrowly focused question, which was ‘Given a very large reform, if the country was opposed to it, should we push it through anyway’ and I said ‘no.’ And I used language that was too strong — although the underlying principle I think is right. When you’re passing very large reforms that affects people’s lives you have to have an approach which engages them, listens to them — doesn’t just try to sell them — modifies the bill as necessary, builds a consensus.”

He said people take potential changes to Medicare “personally” in a way they don’t changes in other policy areas. “Medicare is not like anything else. . . . you’re dealing with nitro-glycerin.”

So while Gingrich called the Ryan budget a “terrific start” and said he supports moving Medicare in the direction of premium support, he also said that transforming the budget’s broad framework for reform into workable legislation would mean bringing the American people along “voluntarily.”

“We should not try to impose on them a plan that they have not thoroughly understood and that they are not prepared to support,” he said. This, and not Ryan’s proposal specifically, is what he said he had in mind when he told Gregory he opposed “right-wing social engineering.”

He also put the issue in terms of electoral strategy. “We’re at the very beginning of a really important national conversation,” he said. “And what the left wants to do is freeze us in place where we are right now, make us defend every single detail, and be in a position where we’re in constant defense for all of 2012.” In response to a question about whether his comments might be used as a cudgel against Republican incumbents who supported the Ryan budget, Gingrich said he would cut an ad “gratis” for any candidate who thought it would be helpful.

Gingrich called “valid” criticism that his ideas on certain issues “evolve” and that he has felt free to change his mind in his capacity as an analyst. But he said that would now change. “Those are not the prerogatives of somebody who is offering to be president.”

Hereiterated his support for full repeal of Obamacare while leaving himself room to endorse elements of it — what he called on MTP a “variation” of the individual mandate, for instance — by adopting the federalist argument advanced by fellow GOP contender Mitt Romney. States, Gingrich said, should have the “freedom to try to experiment with improvements.” He also said that “we should try to find a way to have people pay for the health care they get” but that eliminating free-riders wouldn’t necessarily require a mandate. He criticized David Gregory for running a clip from 1993 in which Gingrich endorsed an individual mandate as an alternative to the Clinton health care bill.

“I don’t regard a statement made 18 years ago in reference to Hillarycare as having any relevance in discussing Obamacare and the Obama federal mandate.”

Gingrich said he was only expressing what was at the time the conservative view. “In 1993 you had nothing like the current focus on the 10th Amendment, you had nothing like the current desire to get power out of Washington, and you didn’t have the sense of radicalism that Obama has injected into the system,” he said. “It was a different world.”

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